Tag Archives: China

From Construction to Production

NANTONG, CHINA – Nolan Howell likes to do a walkthrough of his concrete realm two or three times a week. “Just to see what’s working and what’s not,” he tells me as we head toward to front door of Shaw Industry’s carpet tile facility on a bright spring morning. Even as the plant rises, the list of things still undone is a tangle of big decisions and small details: sign the landscaping contract, fix the glass facade on the front office, get the wheelchair ramp in place – “when is that scaffolding coming down?”

A few months ago, the plant kitchen – the gastronomic laboratory for hundreds of Shaw associates and executives alike, following Chinese custom to feed employees – was a dark, empty cave. As we swoop through this time, it looks like the set of Top Chef, complete with a wok the size of a sled that can stir fry a feast’s worth of chicken and broccoli. Whatever Chinese delicacies will be concocted there, Howell plans on enjoying them. “The more I eat with the workers the better my Mandarin will get,” he says.

On the plant floor, Howell introduces me to two key players in Shaw’s recipe for Chinese success. They have come all the way from Chattanooga, TN, but they don’t look exhausted from their journey in the least. A pair of tufting machines – steel monsters filled with rows of needles – sit gleaming and silent under fluorescent lights. They will churn out up to 500 square yards per hour, Howell explains. That’s enough carpet tile to fill 16 singles tennis courts every day.

As part of Shaw’s commitment to sustainability, the Nantong plant incorporates the most cutting edge technologies around, from the state of the art energy control system in the ovens, which reduce gas usage and improve tile quality, to advanced high efficiency equipment for yarn usage, backing and latex application.

But the machinery on site won’t do their jobs alone. Chinese managers, engineers and supervisors have spent weeks in the United States “getting nothing but equipment training,” Howell says, with stacks worth of manuals and hours of instructional videos.

They need to learn fast. In a few weeks, each machine will come to life in a crescendo of industrial might as Shaw begins the testing process in May. The tufting machines, so quiet now, will emerge from their mechanized slumber to whir and vibrate, their needles dancing a designated choreography across the color palate. They will be joined by other marvels of technology such as a machine the size of a whale that processes computer signals.

I try to imagine the noise that will resound in this cavernous space and the workers on hand to keep the production line flowing. But all there is now is the distant percussion of hammers and saws – the symphony of construction, with Howell as its conductor.

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Feng Shui

For thousands of years, Chinese emperors consulted with powerful mystics for guidance about how to rule. These men and their knowledge were kept secret, even as they helped shape the fate of dynasties and the landscape of an ancient empire. They were masters of “feng shui,” or “wind water,” a belief system grounded in the concept of living in harmony with one’s surroundings.

Feng shui practices have long been used to design buildings, from palaces and tombs long ago to skyscrapers and modern homes today. In the 13th century, feng shui masters chose a spot flanked by auspicious mountains as the site for a new imperial capital, which would one day become Beijing. The same concepts have dictated how Chinese build their houses, situate their desks and even where they place their potted plants. Essentially it’s about the flow of energy to maximize comfort and thus productivity.

When east meets west, feng shui is often in the middle. In 2005, Disney executives shifted the main gate of Hong Kong Disneyland by 12 degrees, after consulting with a feng shui master who said the change would ensure the then-under construction theme park’s success. Although the multinational banking and financial services company HSBC is based in London, its Hong Kong headquarters is practically a shrine to feng shui: a pair of lions guarding the entrance protect the building’s wealth, a square out front allows business opportunities to flow unobstructed and the building’s downtown location is judged to be supremely auspicious.

The offices (under construction) at the Nantong facility

Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s clear that in Asia, feng shui is good for business. After all, nobody wants to alienate customers by ignoring their spiritual culture. That’s why the main office in Shaw’s new carpet tile plant in Nantong, China was designed with feng shui in mind.

When I arrive on a clear spring day in mid-March, the front lobby is cluttered with scaffolding, plaster and a huddle of workmen sanding and sawing. The first thing I notice is the lack of right angles, which Chinese believe blocks positive “qi” or energy.

Jason Bowling, Shaw Industries’ Director of Corporate Facilities, stands in the lobby taking mental notes. “There’s a lot of concern about corners in this culture, so we want to make sure everything looks right,” he tells me.

Bowling first came to the plant site in 2011, “when it was still a piece of ground.” As the force behind Shaw’s showrooms in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, he’s learned a lot about what works visually in Asia, and that’s vital. With several months to go before the plant opens, it’s his job to ensure the environment is, as a feng shui master would say, harmonious.

The under-constructon office in the Nantong facility

“Shaw is a design-forward organization,” he says, eyeing the smooth lines that swoop across the front entrance with a practiced eye. “We’re bringing that idea to the Chinese market, which is why we’re sharpshooting.”

Recently, the Shaw design team got a bit of homegrown help. When Anna Chu, Shaw China’s business development manager, took a run-through of the office, she noticed something was amiss. According to the principles of feng shui, the ideal seating position faces south to take the most advantage of natural light. But the office set for Shaw China director Nolan Howell faced north.

The exterior of the Nantong facility

As a Chinese working for an American company, Anna was unsure whether her advice would be heeded – or laughed at. “I didn’t want people to think I’m superstitious,” she tells me. So she waited and then she mentioned it to the property management company, which agreed it was a strange decision, at least from a Chinese perspective. That convinced her to speak up. “In America it’s not an issue, but in China people really feel these decisions can impact your business,” she says. Howell agreed, and today his office, sure enough, faces south.

“If you think about design, it’s always functionality and comfort,” says Anna. “Feng shui is based on the same idea.”

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Shaw Chop

Shaw Industries’ new manufacturing plant in China is one exit beyond the Sutong Bridge – a right turn past the billboard advertising Chinese power drills. Its nerve center is in a low building, behind a door at the end of an unheated hallway. Inside, I’m expecting a maze of cubicles, whirring office machines, and ringing phones. This is, after all, where Shaw is creating the next generation of its Asia-Pacific business.

Instead, I discover a quiet room largely empty except for a single long table topped by computers, printers and phones. Several Chinese women focus intently on computer screens. Tucked away in a corner are a computer and printer with a curious-looking extension.

Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, follows my gaze. “That,” he says with reverence, “is for the fapiao.”

"The fapiao is to business in China what oxygen is to breathing."

One of the first Mandarin words you learn working in China is fapiao, which means “official invoice.” This sheet of paper isn’t just any old receipt. Registered at the tax bureau, the fapiao is to business in China what oxygen is to breathing.

The other business tool with which Howell has rapidly become acquainted since he arrived here last year is less hi-tech – and even more critical. In China every legal document must come with a signature that proves it’s been officially anointed. Not just any signature will do. Like letters of old stamped in wax by the king, modern China adores the chop, a heavy metal stamp engraved with the company’s name.

Howell never goes anywhere without the Shaw chop, which he presses onto each document with gusto, leaving a bright red imprint. “The amount of ink I’ve gone through with that thing is astounding,” he says, chuckling.

This is life behind the scenes at Shaw’s factory in Nantong, the future Asian hub of the world’s largest carpet manufacturer. For as long as construction workers have been building the plant, Howell and his ever-expanding Chinese team have been toiling over the details, major and minor. It’s all part of expanding a global business.

This room is a temporary office staffed by Shaw’s newly hired customer service squad. Today customers in Asia call the company’s offices in the United States, half a world and a several time zones away. That means placing orders around, say, midnight Beijing time – not the most convenient moment to check on a delivery.

That will all change next month when Nantong takes over Shaw customer service for this part of the globe. “We’ll be working our customers’ hours,” says Howell. “It’ll be a huge improvement both for customers and us.”

The shift is providing another opportunity for Shaw to blend its skills across borders. After the Chinese New Year holiday, Shaw’s U.S.-based customer service team will arrive in Nantong, set to train its Chinese counterparts in the art of the order. If they have time, perhaps the Americans can learn to master the chop while they’re at it.

Image: China-briefing.com

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Nantong Facility Takes Shape

The first containers rolled up to the factory in the morning. Big cargo crates, like the kinds on freight trains that whiz past small American towns. Which these probably did, before finding their way onto ships at the port in Savannah. Now, weeks later, they have finally arrived half a world away.

Workers unload the first crates of carpet tile equipment at the Nantong factory.

Nolan Howell, Shaw’s China director, watches from the parking lot in a winter coat, yellow safety vest and hard hat. These containers hold machines, but they are more than just carpet manufacturing equipment. Their very presence marks the beginning of the next stage in Shaw’s journey to China. “Today is pretty historic,” he says.

Hundreds of construction workers and nine months after Shaw first broke ground on its carpet tile plant here in the city of Nantong, the building itself is nearly complete. There’s no water or gas yet, but the sprinklers and boilers are installed, a tangle of red and blue pipes that wend across the towering ceiling. Considering that the last time I was here the factory was but a shell, just seeing the lights triggers a sense of accomplishment shared by all involved, American and Chinese alike.

The first equipment being unloaded at Shaw’s Nantong plant.

But there is no resting on laurels. In fact, it’s as if someone turned up the pressure. Although Shaw has set an opening date of July, the swift pace that defines China’s economic boom is about to come to a screeching halt in mid-February, when practically the entire nation shuts down for the annual Chinese lunar new year holiday, known as Spring Festival.

In a country where hundreds of millions of people live and work great distances from their hometowns, Spring Festival is a yearly tradition few would dream of ignoring. Factories close, offices go silent and restaurants go dark as most Chinese head home for vacation to spend time with their families, light fire crackers and toast with copious amounts of rice wine.

Nolan Howell and Susan Chen discuss the Nantong factory’s plans for Chinese lunar new year.

According to state media, China’s vast rail network is expected to handle 225 million trips over the 40-day travel rush, while the nation’s long-distance busses will pack in up to 3.1 billion passengers. Chinese airlines are planning on more than 30 million journeys.

“At least half the country is traveling long distance,” Howell tells me, sighing. “Everyone’s gotta go somewhere.”

For Shaw, the holiday is a major test in what happens when global commerce meets local tradition. As the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, shutting down is not an option. To ward off that fate, Howell and his team are pulling out all the stops to keep the lights on.

Law Chen, Shaw’s China logistics manager, will be working through Spring Festival in what he calls a labor of love. “This project is for my family,” he tells me at the factory gate. “If anything, working through the Chinese new year feels auspicious.”

Law Chen, logistics manager in the newly built Nantong carpet tile plant.

But Shaw is not depending solely on its employees. Over the past few weeks, the company has reached out to local customs officials, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants to ensure the dozens of American workers coming over to install the equipment will be able to do their jobs. So far, it looks like all systems go.

“We’re optimistic,” says Howell. That includes his wife. “I’ve promised her that when it’s done we’re going to spend a week on a tropical beach.”

James Jarrett, director of Shaw commercial manufacturing at the Nantong plant.

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Canstruction Hong Kong 2012

For the first time, Canstruction® came to Asia and chose Hong Kong as the launch city. Canstruction® combines the competitive spirit of a design/build competition with a unique way to help feed the hungry. Competing teams showcase their talents by designing giant sculptures made entirely out of canned food. At the close of the exhibition, all of the food used in the structures is donated to local food banks.

Our Shaw Contract Group team in China participated in the event. With their support, the team collected over 20,000 cans of food for the Hong Kong community. All of the cans will be distributed to two major food banks and five local community pantries.

The team's Canstruction sculpture

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